PARISH HISTORY OF SAINT PETER CHURCH, HARTFORD, CT
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St. Peter's Parish was established in the year 1859. James Buchanan was president then. There were 33 states in the United States. And the population of the City of Hartford had by that time risen to the proud total of 28,000. Of course, only a fraction of this number was Catholic but, with the increase of immigrants from Europe, it was becoming a larger fraction. These people tended to settle in industrial cities along the land and water routes of transportation, and Hartford drew a large number of them. St. Patrick's Parish, which had been founded in 1829 under the name of Holy Trinity, was still the only Catholic church in Hartford. And so, on September 25, 1859, during Sunday vespers at St. Patrick's, Rt. Rev. Francis P. McFarland, Bishop of Hartford, announced that he was creating a second parish from the southern half of St. Patrick's. It was to be assigned all of the territory in Hartford south of the Little River (later more euphoniously renamed the "Park"), as well as the town of Wethersfield. The Little River provided a natural dividing line inasmuch as it marked off that southern section of the Town of Hartford, which was not annexed to the City of Hartford until 1873. In terms of people, it included perhaps 1,500 Catholics, a few of them Germans, most of them Irish. Bishop McFarland also announced that Rev. Peter Kelly, erstwhile curate at St. Patrick's, former pastor of Falls Village, was to head the new parish.
Like so many of the Catholic clergy of nineteenth century America, Father Kelly had been born in Ireland. Completing college there, he crossed to France and entered the Seminary of St. Sulpice. And while at Paris arrangements were completed for him to carry on his priestly work, not in Ireland, but in the Diocese of Hartford, in the mission land of America. He came to the United States in 1851 and finished the last nine months of his seminary training in Providence, Rhode Island, at the home of the bishop of Hartford. (The Diocese of Hartford at that time embraced both the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island and the bishop preferred to live in Providence, where there were considerably more Catholics than in his episcopal city.) Father Kelly was ordained in June 1852, at St. Patrick's Church, Hartford.
At the same time that Bishop McFarland announced creation of the new parish, he was able to state that a new church building had already been obtained for it. On September 7, Mr. James Tiernan had made purchase of the "Old South School House" on lower Main Street opposite the South Green, a block away from the spot where Connecticut's famous Charter Oak had stood until its fall in 185'6. The brick structure had been built as a Hartford public school in 1830. In 1851 it had been sold by the South School District and used as a Methodist Episcopal Church. Later (1856) it had been rented as a Free Mission Chapel. And on September 14, the day before announcement of the new parish was made, Mr. Tiernan sold the building to Bishop McFarland.
With the help of parishioners, Father Kelly now had a few rapid renovations made in the building and it became Hartford's second Catholic church. It was called St. Peter's. (Was it complete coincidence that Father Kelly's name was also "Peter"?) And on the Sunday following announcement of formation of the new parish Mass was offered in it for the first time.
On October 6, Father Kelly purchased a large, old frame building immediately to the north of his new church, "the old White mansion," to serve as his pastoral residence. It cost $7,000, fifteen hundred dollars more than the church itself. Meanwhile, in the church, other more complete alterations were being made. The upper floor was converted into galleries or balconies that looked down into the church proper and the transformed building was enlarged to almost twice its original capacity of 400 persons. As a final touch, a cross was mounted on top of the small belfry in front to proclaim its new religious character. The structure was formally dedicated by Bishop McFarland on Sunday, December 4, 1859. The day was unpleasant and stormy. Nevertheless, a large procession formed at St. Patrick's at 10 o'clock, proceeded to St. Peter's, and marched around the outside of the church as the blessing was pronounced. High Mass was celebrated within the church immediately afterward, at "10 1/2 o'clock." As was the custom at this time for all outstanding church events, the offering was a dollar a person, and a thousand dollars was thus realized towards liquidation of the parish debt.
As soon as refurbishing of the new church was completed, construction of a school was started. It was built on the largest area of land available at that time, to the rear of the church. Furnished with the most complete equipment of its day, the school was opened in the fall of 1860 with 200 students. The principal of the school was Mr. John Gaffney, and he and the three laywomen who taught in the school had their salaries paid by the city of Hartford. Father Kelly was the first Catholic pastor in Connecticut to ask for and obtain such recognition for his school, i.e. recognition of a parochial school as part of a city school system, with public money paying the teachers' wages and the parish supplying the building free of charge. (The students paid for their own books.) The South School Committee was glad to enter into such an agreement, realizing that is spared them expense in educating the children involved and that it relieved congestion in the public school on Wadsworth Street where, for want of room, children were even being crowded into the basement. St. Peter's parish school was therefore incorporated into Hartford's city school system as the "Main Street" branch.
In April 1862, a parish Mission was given at St. Peter's by four members of the Redemptorist Order. While a crowd that filled the church to overflowing was listening to one of the sermons, a girl raised the alarm (which proved unfounded) that the galleries were falling. All were thrown into panic. It was only Father Kelly's quick action and words that restored the congregation to calmness and averted what threatened to become a calamity.
Father Kelly was a man who knew how to deal with people, and he was one of the best liked and most respected men in the Hartford of his day. This was no mean feat in the heyday of Nativism in Connecticut. As the Hartford Times said in 1862 (October 23): "There were never, probably, stronger ties between a pastor and people. They know and feelingly appreciate Fr. Kelly's valuable services to them. He has sacrificed personal comforts, and labored with unceasing efforts to build up a church respected by all good citizens." There was therefore considerable stir in the fall of 1862 when rumors of Father Kelly's transfer became rife. Said the Hartford Courant on October 24: "Fr. Kelly of St. Peter's Church has been changed from this diocese [sic] to that of Norwich . . . Several gentlemen have called upon the Bishop requesting him to revoke his decision in this case, which we are informed he has declined to do." Said the same paper the very next day, to calm the storm of comment raised by the report: "Regarding Fr. Kelly's removal, we will only say that we received our information from parties perfectly reliable and well calculated to know. We did not say half as much about it as the Times did." But within the week rumors of Father Kelly's transfer became official announcement. He was not transferred to a parish in Norwich, but to St. Joseph's in Providence, Rhode Island. He died in Rhode Island, at Valley Falls, in 1868, and in accordance with his often expressed wish was buried from St. Peter's Church and in old St. Patrick's Cemetery.
The second pastor of St. Peter's was the Rev. John Lynch, who was transferred to Hartford from Derby (then called "Birmingham"). While he was at St. Peter's, in February of 1865, he purchased a building on Main Street from Mr. Henry Barnard, the noted American educator. South of the church property, which was already owned, this became the new parish rectory. And two months after that Father Lynch began an undertaking Father Kelly had also contemplated - construction of a new church building. The old South School building was still living up to its tradition of becoming too small to fulfill its owners' purposes.
For ingenuity, the manner of constructing the new church still remains unsurpassed. It was to be situated on the site of the old. To provide room for its larger size the old rectory to the north was razed. All quite ordinary. But to :void the problem of moving elsewhere for services (luring the building of the new church, the old was not razed. Not the least bit ordinary! Instead, Father lynch adopted the unique plan of erecting the new church around or outside of the old. The walls of the new church were built just outside those of the old. For a while during construction there were walls outside of walls, or walls within walls, so that it was hard, according to some, to find your way out of the church once you were in. Perhaps this was the idea uppermost in the minds of those who, during this time, irreverently dubbed St. Peter's Church "the eel pot".
The work of building was begun in August 1864. The foundation up to the water table was laid at this time, and then work was suspended until March 8, 1865, when the side walls were started. When the new, outer church was ready for roofing the old one was torn down. The work was so expertly carried on that attendance at Mass was not interrupted for a single week. One Sunday the parishioners prayed within the old, familiar church. During the week the old, inner walls were taken out. The next Sunday the parishioners prayed within the walls of the new church.
Father Lynch was considered by those who knew him to be a man of exactness and care. It is said that during his pastorate not a dollar or a dollar's worth of material was wasted. This trait was most evident during the time of construction of the new church building. At any time, if not all the time from dawn to dusk each day, Father Lynch could be found at the site of work personally keeping tabs on the progress of the job.
St. Peter's new church was designed by Mr. John Murphy, one of the more noted architects of the day. He had once been an associate of Mr. P. C. Keily, the architect who during his career designed the original St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hartford, the cathedral at Providence, and several hundred other churches throughout the country. As conceived by Murphy, St. Peter's was an example of the French Gothic style prevalent in the nineteenth century. It was constructed of Portland brownstone and, with dimensions of 180 by 80 feet, was one of the largest churches in the state. And with an altar railing 75 feet long it had, in 1868, the largest sanctuary of any church in America. It was an imposing structure and its interior vaulting was especially graceful with fine, traditionally correct lines. However, the original plans called for a south tower and spire that were not carried out. Original estimates had placed the cost of the entire church at $150,000. The church body without tower actually cost $200,000. This at a time when the average laborer's daily pay was $2.20 is a tribute to the wholehearted generosity of the people of the parish and to their faith in the future of the Catholic Church in Hartford. But the tower had to be left unfinished. And St. Peter's was thus among those churches which later caused Mark Twain to refer to Hartford as the city of "sawed-off spires."
The cornerstone of St. Peter's Church was laid in June 1865. The structure was finished and dedicated by Bishop McFarland (who personally contributed one of the windows) July 26, 1868. The sermon at the Pontifical High Mass of dedication was preached by Bishop O'Connor of Baltimore; he spoke for an hour and a half. That night at vespers, in the light of gas jets that illumined the church's shining, chestnut wood fixtures and lavender painted walls, Bishop McFarland himself preached. The building dedicated that day is the same church building which stands today and, since fire destroyed the original St. Patrick's in 1875, it is the oldest Catholic church building in the city of Hartford.
While all was going well with the construction of the new parish church, however, matters were not going the least bit well in the parish school. The school was growing satisfactorily. This was due in part to the efforts of Father Lynch, who acted as truant officer for his own school. Every day saw him scouring every corner of his parish for vagrant children and negligent parents, until such were no longer to be found. But friction, and bitter friction, had developed from the school's dual nature as a Catholic school in a city school system. The problem was not one of "separation of church and state" - the Constitution of the United States was not yet being interpreted to mean that government must stand off from any contact with religion. Rather, the precipitating cause of the crisis was a "Bible question" - the non-Catholic public could not understand how the Catholic Church, Father Lynch, or his parishioners (disapprovingly referred to as the "Irish Brigade") could consider the King James Bible a sectarian book. And the underlying cause of the crisis was a question of teacher personnel. All the original teachers at the "Main Street" school set up by Father Kelly had been Catholic. The district school committee of the city, which paid these lay teachers their salaries later, began to fill vacancies in the staff with non-Catholics. By 1865, half of the teachers were such. And then the difficulty began. Judge McManus, writing in the Catholic Transcript in 1905 (July 6), gives this emotional, ironic, yet historically accurate account of the affair:
At the school district election in 1865, an entirely new district committee was elected by the well-known method of packing the meeting with the friends of the new committee. The defeated committee was not only chagrined, but furious.
They charged their defeat to the friends of St. Peter's school, who no doubt had not been too well pleased at the action of the old committee in filling the places of the Catholic teachers at St. Peter's, whenever a vacancy occurred, with non-Catholics. At the close of the school year in 1865, one of the Catholic teachers retired and the committee employed in her place a Miss Parsons for the ensuing year. The defeated committee saw here a magnificent opportunity to punish those who had caused their defeat. They counselled Miss Parsons to begin her duties every morning by having religious services in her department, conducted by herself, including prayer and readings from the King James version of the Bible. She was also instructed to resent any and all interest that Father Lynch might show in the school and to forbid his addressing the pupils under her charge, and she was furnished with a carefully prepared formula of instruction of what to say and do in every conceivable event. She deliberately ignored the new committee in everything except in drawing her salary. When Mr. S. C. Bassett, the chairman, remonstrated with her for introducing the religious exercises without consulting the committee, she refused and defied the committee. She was transferred to a school on Wadsworth Street in the same grade and at the same salary, but she refused to go.
The committee then discharged her. The old committee began then to get in their work. Indignation meetings were held or met without call all over the district to testify to the righteous indignation of an outraged people, over the persecution of this Christian maiden for nobly doing her duty. The new committee was denounced as the servile instruments of the Papal power. Father Lynch and the people of St. Peter's were denounced for having spent thousands of dollars for beautiful schools for the purpose of keeping the people in ignorance. The Pope was denounced, of course. The doorways of every house in the district were littered with circulars calling on the voters to crush this infamous attempt to destroy our great American institutions, especially the King James Version of the Holy Scriptures. A meeting of the voters of the district was called to vote by ballot and check list and it was ordered by an immense majority that the committee should reinstate Miss Parsons at St. Peter's school. The committee failing to do so were compelled by a mandamus from the Superior on advice of the Supreme Court. Miss Parsons completed her term, drew her salary, and read her King James Version of the Bible to an empty school room. The parents sent their children to other schools until Father Lynch secured teachers from the convent on Church Street.
The convent on Church Street referred to by judge McManus was the one attached to St. Patrick's parish. The Sisters of Mercy had been established there in 1852 as an offshoot of their Providence house. Now they also took over operation of St. Peter's school. In the spring of 1866, despite the support of Mr. Henry Barnard (who would become United States Commissioner of Education in 1867) and other impartial members of the community, St. Peter's closed for the last time as a public school, thanks to "the insane bigotry of a few hot heads in the South School District" (Hartford Times, July 27, 1868). When it reopened it became a completely parochial school under complete parish authority. As St. Peter's Church was then in the course of construction there were no resources immediately available to obtain a parish convent for the sisters. Instead, they commuted daily by horse car from their convent on Church Street to their classes at St. Peter's.
In 1869, while Father Lynch was himself out in his horse and carriage on a parish call, a collision occurred with another, recklessly driven vehicle and he suffered a fractured collarbone. He needed complete rest. Accordingly, during his convalescence Father Lynch left for a visit to his native Ireland. Just as he was returning home the sudden death of his father required extension of his stay there. There had been a curate assigned to St. Peter s since shortly after its foundation, and so Rev. John Cooney, assistant at that time, administered the parish in Father Lynch's absence. In the spring of 1870 Rev. Lawrence Walsh of Collinsville was named third pastor of St. Peter's. Upon his return Father Lynch was reappointed to Derby where, though an invalid, he remained as industrious as ever until his death in October 1878.
A few months after his arrival at St. Peter's Father Walsh procured a home at 24 Charter Oak Place for the sisters teaching in the school. The superior (Sister Mary Borgia Douglas) and her teaching staff of four Sisters of Mercy were now officially at home in the parish. As was the custom in those days, the convent had a separate name from that of the parish with which it was associated - it was named, not "St. Peter's Convent," but the "Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart." Besides teaching in St. Peter's "Parochial Free School," the sisters opened a private tuitional academy for girls in the convent. The academy was quite an institution in every new convent opened at that time. The Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart comprised a chapel, four large classrooms, recitation room and library. There were, in 1876, 500 pupils in the parish school and 80 girls in the academy. But the academy had only a brief day, as it was thought wiser to make no distinction among the Catholic children. The Academy is listed in the Hartford City Directory for the last time in 1877; that year it had 47 students. St. Peter's Convent, however, went by the name of the "Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart" until the year 1908.
While Father Walsh was pastor at St. Peter's he had an addition built onto the school. (This was the second addition; Father Kelly had had the first put up shortly after the school was built.) He introduced the custom of having one of the priests of the parish visit the Wethersfield State Prison every month to say Mass for the inmates, and a Sunday school was also organized there, conducted by young laymen of the parish. Father Walsh had always played a very active role in the temperance work which was a prominent part of the Church's ministry in the last century; he was so well known for it that he was on occasion flatteringly referred to as "the Father Mathew of America" (Connecticut Catholic, June 24, 1876). He continued his interest in this work throughout his time in Hartford.
In 1872 the state of Rhode Island was cut off ecclesiastically from the state of Connecticut and made a separate diocese, independent of Hartford. The bishop of Hartford now had no choice but to transfer residence from Providence to his actual episcopal city. So it was done. And Bishop McFarland, who had set up St. Peter's parish in 1859, now set up a cathedral parish for himself by establishing St. Joseph's from the western half of St. Peter's and St. Patrick's.
Bishop McFarland died in 1874. Rev. Thomas Galberry, Superior of the Augustinian Order in the United States, was named his successor and consecrated a bishop in St. Peter's Church on March 19 (St. Joseph's Day), 1876. Though Bishop Galberry was the fourth bishop of Hartford, this was the first time that the impressive ritual of episcopal consecration was held in the city of Hartford. Archbishop John J. Williams of Boston performed the ceremony and Bishops O'Reilly of Springfield and Wadhanis of Ogdensburg were the co-consecrators. The event was witnessed by what is reported to have been the almost unbelievable total of 2,001) people. (When St. Peter's was built, with its original, smaller pews, "it was calculated that the church will seat 1,500 people, but will accommodate 1,700" - Hartford Times, July 27, 1868.) People surged into the church for more than an hour before and filled every seat and every aisle, close tip to the altar itself. The invited guests occupied seats in front, and among them were representatives of the state and city authorities and numerous gentlemen of prominence in Hartford. For the occasion banners were displayed on the main altar with the inscriptions: Dominus Conservet Episcopurn Nostrum, Welcome Bishop Galberry, and The God in Heaven Blesses Us Today; and on St. Joseph's altar: Gnudeamus Omnes in Domino, The Lord is With Us, and Benli Qui Ambulant in Viis Domini. The musical program was in charge of one of the Sisters of Mercy. Catholic Church authority had not yet declared a return to strict ecclesiastical traditions in church music, and Mozart's Twelfth Mass was selected for the occasion. It was performed by a choir of sixty voices, selected from the choirs of St. Peter's and St. Joseph's, accompanied by the organ and a brass and string orchestra of sixteen pieces.
Four months later (.July 29) Bishop Galberry designated St. Peter's Church to serve temporarily as his pro-cathedral. As yet, St. Joseph's Cathedral had not been built-there was merely an open lot on Farmington Avenue where it was destined to rise. And St. Patrick's Church had not yet been completely rebuilt from its disastrous fire of the previous year. Father Walsh was thereupon transferred to the pastorate of Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury, and another Father Lynch, Rev. Thomas L. Lynch, was named new rector of the pro-cathedral. He served in that post for not quite a year.
While Father Walsh was still in St. Peter's, he had recognized the need for providing services for the growing number of Catholics in the western extension of his parish. A ledge near New Britain Avenue had for 50 years provided rock for the macadamizing of Hartford's streets and steady work for the immigrant workers coming into the city. In 1876, to provide a "chapel of' ease" for the estimated 480 Catholics settled in the area about the "Rock," as the quarry was called, Father Walsh obtained a tract of land just west of it, on the corner of Laurel and Wilson Streets. The lot was the voluntary gift of the Protestant gentleman named John Allen, who owned a large amount of property in the neighborhood of the stone pits. For a name for the new chapel Father Lawrence Walsh looked no farther than his own patron saint, Lawrence O'Toole. It was left to his successor, Father Lynch, to complete the construction of the neat frame chapel at a cost of $8,000. The cornerstone of the new mission was laid September 3, 1876, and Father Walsh returned from his new parish in Waterbury to deliver the sermon. The mission, which was so close to the "Rock" that it was itself sometimes called that, was cared for by the priests of St. Peter's until 1881, when this part of St. Peter's Parish was also taken under the jurisdiction of the cathedral. Two years later St. Lawrence O'Toole was set up independently as Hartford's fourth Catholic parish.
Hardly two months after he presided at the dedication of St. Lawrence's Father Thomas Lynch was himself reassigned to care for the Catholics of Westerly, and Rev. Michael A. Tierney of Stamford succeeded him as rector of the pro-cathedral (January. 1877). Father Tierney was to remain at St. Peter's for six years and during his charge several notable events were to take place in the parish. One of the earliest and most significant was another decrease in the size of the parish boundaries. St. Peter's had, since its foundation, included the entire town of Wethersfield. As early as December of 1859 Father Kelly, the first pastor, had journeyed there and introduced the custom of saying Mass in the home of one of the parishioners. Now, in 1877, Wethersfield was withdrawn and placed under the jurisdiction and care of St. Mary's, East Hartford. St. Mary's was a considerable distance from Wethersfield-its priests would have to cross the Connecticut River, part of St. Patrick's Parish and all of St. Peter's to reach it. But St. Mary's was at the time a small parish only three years old.
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